The Bostonians (Oxford World's Classics)

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From Boston's social underworld emerges Verena Tarrant, a girl with extraordinary oratorical gifts, which she deploys in tawdry meeting-houses on behalf of 'the sisterhood of women.' She acquires two admirers of a very different stamp: Olive Chancellor, devotee of radical causes, and marked out for tragedy; and Basil Ransom, veteran of the Civil War, with rigid views concerning society and women's place therein. Is the lovely, lighthearted Verena made for public movements or private passions? A struggle to ...
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The Bostonians (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

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Overview


From Boston's social underworld emerges Verena Tarrant, a girl with extraordinary oratorical gifts, which she deploys in tawdry meeting-houses on behalf of 'the sisterhood of women.' She acquires two admirers of a very different stamp: Olive Chancellor, devotee of radical causes, and marked out for tragedy; and Basil Ransom, veteran of the Civil War, with rigid views concerning society and women's place therein. Is the lovely, lighthearted Verena made for public movements or private passions? A struggle to possess her, body and soul, develops between Olive and Basil.

The exploitation of Verena's unregenerate innocence reflects a society whose moral and cultural values are failing to survive the new dawn of liberalism and democracy. The Bostonians (1886) was not welcomed by James's fellow countrymen, who failed to appreciate its delicacy and wit; but a century later, this book is widely regarded as James's finest American fiction, and perhaps his comic masterpiece.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
James's brief 1858 classic is here presented as a no-frills edition in Dover's Thrift series. Since the text is a staple in many high school and college literature curricula, Dover provides a painless, inexpensive way of stocking multiple copies.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780192834423
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/28/1998
  • Series: Oxford World's Classics Series
  • Pages: 504
  • Lexile: 1230L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 7.60 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Henry James
Henry James was a master at tracing the social boundaries of the Gilded Age -- between Old and New World, Europe and America, desire and convention, men and women. He brought an invaluably clear-eyed, and critical, sensibility to America's evolving cultural mores.

Biography

Henry James (1843-1916), born in New York City, was the son of noted religious philosopher Henry James, Sr., and brother of eminent psychologist and philosopher William James. He spent his early life in America and studied in Geneva, London and Paris during his adolescence to gain the worldly experience so prized by his father. He lived in Newport, went briefly to Harvard Law School, and in 1864 began to contribute both criticism and tales to magazines. In 1869, and then in 1872-74, he paid visits to Europe and began his first novel, Roderick Hudson. Late in 1875 he settled in Paris, where he met Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola, and wrote The American (1877). In December 1876 he moved to London, where two years later he achieved international fame with Daisy Miller. Other famous works include Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Princess Casamassima (1886), The Aspern Papers (1888), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and three large novels of the new century, The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). In 1905 he revisited the United States and wrote The American Scene (1907). During his career, he also wrote many works of criticism and travel. Although old and ailing, he threw himself into war work in 1914, and in 1915, a few months before his death, he became a British subject. In 1916 King George V conferred the Order of Merit on him. He died in London in February 1916.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

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    1. Date of Birth:
      April 15, 1843
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      February 28, 1916
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      Attended school in France and Switzerland; Harvard Law School, 1862-63

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel; there are indeed many hotels, since the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place, which, as many travellers will remember, is seated upon the edge of a remarkably blue lake —a lake that it behoves every tourist to visit. The shore of the lake presents an unbroken array of establishments of this order, of every category, from the “grand hotel” of the newest fashion, with a chalk-white front, a hundred balconies, and a dozen flags flying from its roof, to the small Swiss pension of an elder day, with its name inscribed in German-looking lettering upon a pink or yellow wall and an awkward summer-house in the angle of the garden. One of the hotels at Vevey, however, is famous, even classical, being distinguished from many of its upstart neighbours by an air both of luxury and of maturity. In this region, through the month of June, American travellers are extremely numerous; it may be said indeed that Vevey assumes at that time some of the characteristics of an American watering-place. There are sights and sounds that evoke a vision, an echo, of Newport and Saratoga. There is a flitting hither and thither of “stylish” young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance-music in the morning hours, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times. You receive an impression of these things at the excellent inn of the “Trois Couronnes,” and are transported in fancy to the Ocean House or to Congress Hall. But at the “Trois Couronnes,” it must be added, there are other features much at variance with thesesuggestions: neat German waiters who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about, held by the hand, with their governors; a view of the snowy crest of the Dent du Midi and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon.

I hardly know whether it was the analogies or the differences that were uppermost in the mind of a young American, who, two or three years ago, sat in the garden of the “Trois Couronnes,” looking about him rather idly at some of the graceful objects I have mentioned. It was a beautiful summer morning, and in whatever fashion the young American looked at things they must have seemed to him charming. He had come from Geneva the day before, by the little steamer, to see his aunt, who was staying at the hotel—Geneva having been for a long time his place of residence. But his aunt had a headache—his aunt had almost always a headache—and she was now shut up in her room smelling camphor, so that he was at liberty to wander about. He was some seven-and-twenty years of age; when his friends spoke of him they usually said that he was at Geneva “studying.” When his enemies spoke of him they said—but after all he had no enemies: he was extremely amiable and generally liked. What I should say is simply that when certain persons spoke of him they conveyed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there—a foreign lady, a person older than himself. Very few Americans—truly I think none—had ever seen this lady, about whom there were some singular stories. But Winterbourne had an old attachment for the little capital of Calvinism; he had been put to school there as a boy and had afterwards even gone, on trial—trial of the grey old “Academy” on the steep and stony hillside—to college there; circumstances which had led to his forming a great many youthful friendships. Many of these he had kept, and they were a source of great satisfaction to him.

After knocking at his aunt’s door and learning that she was indisposed he had taken a walk about the town and then he had come in to his breakfast. He had now finished that repast, but was enjoying a small cup of coffee which had been served him on a little table in the garden by one of the waiters who looked like attachés. At last he finished his coffee and lit a cigarette. Presently a small boy came walking along the path—an urchin of nine or ten. The child, who was diminutive for his years, had an aged expression of countenance, a pale complexion and sharp little features. He was dressed in knickerbockers and had red stockings that displayed his poor little spindle-shanks; he also wore a brilliant red cravat. He carried in his hand a long alpenstock, the sharp point of which he thrust into everything he approached—the flower-beds, the garden-benches, the trains of the ladies’ dresses. In front of Winterbourne he paused, looking at him with a pair of bright and penetrating little eyes.

“Will you give me a lump of sugar?” he asked in a small sharp hard voice—a voice immature and yet somehow not young.

Winterbourne glanced at the light table near him, on which his coffee-service rested, and saw that several morsels of sugar remained. “Yes, you may take one,” he answered; “but I don’t think too much sugar good for little boys.”

This little boy stepped forward and carefully selected three of the coveted fragments, two of which he buried in the pocket of his knickerbockers, depositing the other as promptly in another place. He poked his alpenstock, lance-fashion, into Winterbourne’s bench and tried to crack the lump of sugar with his teeth.

“Oh blazes; it’s har-r-d!” he exclaimed, divesting vowel and consonants, pertinently enough, of any taint of softness.

Winterbourne had immediately gathered that he might have the honour of claiming him as a countryman. “Take care you don’t hurt your teeth,” he said paternally.

“I haven’t got any teeth to hurt. They’ve all come out. I’ve only got seven teeth. Mother counted them last night, and one came out right afterwards. She said she’d slap me if any more came out. I can’t help it. It’s this old Europe. It’s the climate that makes them come out. In America they didn’t come out. It’s these hotels.”

Winterbourne was much amused. “If you eat three lumps of sugar your mother will certainly slap you,” he ventured.

“She’s got to give me some candy then,” rejoined his young interlocutor. “I can’t get any candy here—any American candy. American candy’s the best candy.”

“And are American little boys the best little boys?” Winterbourne asked.

“I don’t know. I’m an American boy,” said the child.

“I see you’re one of the best!” the young man laughed.

“Are you an American man?” pursued this vivacious infant. And then on his friend’s affirmative reply, “American men are the best,” he declared with assurance.

His companion thanked him for the compliment, and the child, who had now got astride of his alpenstock, stood looking about him while he attacked another lump of sugar. Winterbourne wondered if he himself had been like this in his infancy, for he had been brought to Europe at about the same age.

“Here comes my sister!” cried his young compatriot. “She’s an American girl, you bet!”

Winterbourne looked along the path and saw a beautiful young lady advancing. “American girls are the best girls,” he thereupon cheerfully remarked to his visitor.

“My sister ain’t the best!” the child promptly returned. “She’s always blowing at me.”

“I imagine that’s your fault, not hers,” said Winterbourne. The young lady meanwhile had drawn near. She was dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces and knots of pale-coloured ribbon. Bareheaded, she balanced in her hand a large parasol with a deep border of embroidery; and she was strikingly, admirably pretty. “How pretty they are!” thought our friend, who straightened himself in his seat as if he were ready to rise.

The young lady paused in front of his bench, near the parapet of the garden, which overlooked the lake. The small boy had now converted his alpenstock into a vaulting-pole, by the aid of which he was springing about in the gravel and kicking it up not a little. “Why Randolph,” she freely began, “what are you doing?”

“I’m going up the Alps!” cried Randolph. “This is the way!” And he gave another extravagant jump, scattering the pebbles about Winterbourne’s ears.

“That’s the way they come down,” said Winterbourne.

“He’s an American man!” proclaimed Randolph in his harsh little voice.

The young lady gave no heed to this circumstance, but looked straight at her brother. “Well, I guess you’d better be quiet,” she simply observed.

It seemed to Winterbourne that he had been in a manner presented. He got up and stepped slowly toward the charming creature, throwing away his cigarette. “This little boy and I have made acquaintance,” he said with great civility. In Geneva, as he had been perfectly aware, a young man wasn’t at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady save under certain rarely-occurring conditions; but here at Vevey what conditions could be better than these?—a pretty American girl coming to stand in front of you in a garden with all the confidence in life. This pretty American girl, whatever that might prove, on hearing Winterbourne’s observation simply glanced at him; she then turned her head and looked over the parapet, at the lake and the opposite mountains. He wondered whether he had gone too far, but decided that he must gallantly advance rather than retreat. While he was thinking of something else to say the young lady turned again to the little boy, whom she addressed quite as if they were alone together. “I should like to know where you got that pole.”

“I bought it!” Randolph shouted.

“You don’t mean to say you’re going to take it to Italy!”

“Yes, I’m going to take it t’ Italy!” the child rang out.

She glanced over the front of her dress and smoothed out a knot or two of ribbon. Then she gave her sweet eyes to the prospect again. “Well, I guess you’d better leave it somewhere,” she dropped after a moment.

“Are you going to Italy?” Winterbourne now decided very respectfully to enquire.

She glanced at him with lovely remoteness. “Yes, sir,” she then replied. And she said nothing more.

“And are you—a—thinking of the Simplon?” he pursued with a slight drop of assurance.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose it’s some mountain. Randolph, what mountain are we thinking of?”

Copyright 2002 by Henry James Introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick
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Reading Group Guide

This brilliant satire of the women's rights movement in America is the story of the ravishing inspirational speaker Verena Tarrant and the bitter struggle between two distant cousins who seek to control her. Will the privileged Boston feminist Olive Chancellor succeed in turning her beloved ward into a celebrated activist and lifetime companion? Or will Basil Ransom, a conservative southern lawyer, steal Verena's heart and remove her from the limelight?

"The Bostonians has a vigor and blithe wit found nowhere else in James," writes A. S. Byatt in her Introduction. "It is about idealism in a democracy that is still recovering from a civil war bitterly fought for social ideals . . . [written] with a ferocious, precise, detailed—and wildly comic—realism."

1. "I wished to write a very American tale, a tale very characteristic of our social conditions," wrote Henry James in one of his Notebooks. How would you describe the social and political climate in New England as depicted in The Bostonians? Consider the profound effects of the recently ended Civil War, as well as the changes wrought by an increasingly industrial society.

2. In A. S. Byatt's Introduction, she notes that Henry James was raised in a progressive, transcendentalist household, and that he was "able to report the phantasmagoria of spiritual and political abstractions, magnetisms, and influences, with a surefooted realist solidity of specification . . . because it is what he knew best and first. . . . The characters even the southerner, Basil Ransom– are people James was at ease with, could represent economically, precisely, and with wit." Do you agree? Which of the charactersdescribed by Mrs. Luna as "witches and wizards, mediums, and spirit-rappers, and roaring radicals" stand out as the most fully realized? Do any of them strike you as caricatures?

3. According to Alison Lurie, "The central conflict in The Bostonians is over who will have possession of Verena. Because she is naive and passive, her own wishes have little to do with the outcome." Do you agree? Consider the various characters who battle to control the beautiful young orator: Olive Chancellor, Basil Ransom, the Tarrants, Mr.Burrage and his mother, and Matthias Pardon. How do their motives differ, and what does Verena represent to each of them?

4. Writing about The Bostonians, Irving Howe praises "James' affectionate rendering of places and scenes. The elegance of Olive Chancellor's drawing room, the dinginess of the Cambridge street in which the Tarrants live, the glimmering mildness of Cape Cod in the summer . . . The musty mumbling circle of reformers meeting, and sagging, in Miss Birdseye's rooms . . ." After reading James's satirical masterpiece, which scenes and locales strike you as the most vivid and memorable?

5. In Chapter 5, James writes that Olive "knew her place in the Boston hierarchy, and it was not what Mrs. Farrinder supposed; so that there was a want of perspective in talking to her as if she had been a representative of the aristocracy. . . . Olive Chancellor seemed to herself to have privileges enough without being affiliated to the exclusive
set and having invitations to the smaller parties, which were the real test." Can you find other examples of a defined social hierarchy in The Bostonians? How would you compare Olive's views on class structure with the social aspirations–or lack thereof–of Mrs. Luna, Miss Birdseye, Dr. Prance, and Mrs. Tarrant?

6. Much has been written about the closing line of The Bostonians: "It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which [Verena] was about to enter, these were not the last [tears] she was destined to shed." What do you imagine the future holds for Verena, Basil, and Olive?

7. When The Bostonians was first published, in 1886, it was deemed a critical and commercial failure in America. Why do you think James's nineteenth-century contemporaries found the novel so distasteful? Was it the author's colorful characterization of the women's suffrage movement or his depiction of a "Boston marriage" between Olive and Verena? Was it his depiction of a bitter struggle between a northerner and a southerner, so soon after the Civil War? As a modern reader, did you find the author's satirical portrait of the women's suffrage movement or Basil Ransom's antifeminist arguments offensive? Are the viewpoints expressed in the novel still relevant today?

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  • Posted January 16, 2011

    A great read--and a good place to start reading Henry James

    This is early James--although this particular edition has the revisions that he made for the New York Edition in 1907. Heavily influenced by Balzac, this novel nevertheless contains many pleasures that are purely Jamesian. I had not read it for years, and enjoyed my return to its pages immensely.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2006

    BN should care more care over their descriptions

    Barnes & Noble should take greater care over the description and reviews that they attach to the books they sale. This text is not a Dove Classic it is not about the romance of a woman with an Italian. This error should embarrass and call for greater care and honor to each text.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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